Monday, 29 October 2018

The Spirit of Sir Walter

Isaiah 28: 14-16. God is laying a foundation stone in Zion - Jesus Christ - a sure foundation for anyone who trusts in Him for the salvation of our souls.
Ephesians 2:19-22. The whole church ("Ecclesia" - a gathering of people - not a building of stone) is built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets with Jesus of course as the cornerstone.
John 15: 17-27. The church is called out of the world. This is the essence of Holiness. Being Holy means being separate, being different and distinctive.
One of the curses of the modern church is that the urge to "fit in" and "be modern" and "not to cause any offense" whatsoever is that we become invisible, so indistinguishable from secular society that people are left asking, why bother?

I would not have thought four months ago that I would know quite so much about Sir Walter Raleigh or been present at so many things in his memory.

But being present, and indeed vicar of the church which he attended as a boy, and at which his dad was church warden have changed all that for ever.

In this short time, I have realised there are several points at which our life stories overlap – and I don’t mean because I like chips and a good cigar!

It wasn’t long before I learned that as a young man, Walter, along with others from this area travelled to France to fight alongside the French protestants in the bloody wars of religion in France. The French protestants were known collectively as the Huguenots - and I am of Huguenot descent – Martin Jacques - in the French pronunciation of my name.

Indeed there was a French Huguenot vicar of this very church - Daniel Caunieres, who went on to become chaplain to Lord Clinton at Filleigh near Barnstaple.. It is no wonder I feel at home.

And at this point I want to acknowledge and welcome the present Lord Clinton to our service today.

In these ecumenical days it is easy to overlook or sideline the real differences in Western Christianity that so impassioned people that Sir Walter to go and fight and endanger his own life in defence on what he believed to be the truth of the gospel.

Some of the essence and background of that passion is carried in our Bible readings today.

There is no mention of a divinely ordained priesthood in our readings. In fact you will find that there is only one understanding of a high priest in the entire new testament and that high priest is Jesus Christ himself.

So what was Sir Walter prepared to die for exactly?

He was prepared to fight and very possibly be killed to defend the notion that we have only the need for Jesus Christ as our mediator between ourselves and God – not a divinely ordained priesthood organised and directed from Rome.

He was prepared to die for the notion that we are saved by God’s grace alone made effective by faith. St. Paul’s great revelation buried by the church and re-discovered by Martin Luther – a re-discovery that set Europe alight.

We cannot earn or work our passage to heaven – a doctrine enshrined in the selling of indulgences by the Roman catholic church. When we repent and believe the good news we are forgiven and saved completely.

Sir Walter Raleigh laid his life on the line to fight for and defend these beliefs.

Beliefs that guide and underpin the Anglican church to this day and always will because they are simply the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sir Walter was also a great seafarer and adventurer, and I am also pleased to welcome representatives from the Royal Navy’s training establishment – HMS Raleigh in Plymouth.

Here too is some overlap with my life. I was once a recruit at HMS Raleigh myself. My naval career was very short and inglorious, but I trust that that same sense of adventure, spirit and bravery that characterised Sir Walter’s life is being exhibited in the lives of these young people with us today. 

The buccaneering spirit of Sir Walter Raleigh – his bravery – his adventurism – his willingness to fight and defend principles that he knew to be true – these are all qualities that we could all do with a little more of in this world.

On the day we commemorate his execution – which he faced with the same aplomb that he lived his life – let us remember our most famous son with affection and respect.

Let us also remember that Sir Walter while he would have shown due deference to the social order of the day out of political necessity would have willingly bowed to no-one else than his lord and master – Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, 22 October 2018

crushed for our iniquities

Sunday 21st October. Trinity 21, Proper 24
Isaiah 53: 4-end. As beautiful and moving a description of the sacrificial, redemptive death of Jesus that you will ever read, written hundreds of years before He was born in Bethlehem. 
Hebrews 5: 1-10. Jesus is "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" making an eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Melchizedek is a mysterious character from the book of Genesis who is seen by many as a precursor to Jesus.
Mark 10: 35-45. The nature of Christian leadership is to be marked by servant-hood.  Those in any position of authority must always realise they sit under God and are here to serve the people and lead them into God.

We say Jesus died for our sins? That He is our high priest? A priest after the order of Melchizedek? WOW - Hold on - what does all that even mean?
I will start with our reading from Hebrews.
A high priest is the person appointed to offer sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple to atone for the sins of the Israeli people. (Atone: make a person at one with God)
There are three characteristics outlined by Hebrews that any high priest must have;
He must be human;
He must be able to empathise with human weakness and represent human beings to God;
He must offer sacrifice on behalf of the people.
Where Christ’s priesthood differs from other high priests is that He didn’t have to atone for his own sins because He was without Sin which the letter goes on to explain (7.27), but also His priesthood is higher than the traditional priesthood inaugurated by Aaron from whom the traditional high priesthood of Israel are derived.
Jesus’ priesthood is higher than that. Jesus is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”.
Melchizedek is a mysterious, enigmatic and compelling character that appears only in chapter 14 of Genesis and psalm 110 which is a messianic psalm but his influence on Christian understanding of the self-sacrifice of Jesus is immense when seeking to understand Jesus Christ.
It is Melchizedek that blesses Abraham, the first patriarch and progenitor of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.
Melchizedek has no genealogy. He was appointed by God most high as an eternal priest.
He was priest-king of Salem, the ancient original name of Jerusalem.
Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe. The first mention of a tithe in the Bible, and this is given as recognition that He was sent, appointed by God for tithes are given to God, not human beings.
Melchizedek came bearing bread and wine. Does that sound familiar?
In saying that Christ’s high priesthood is after the order of Melchizadek he is saying that Christ’s priesthood is “once for all” and is derived from the direct call of God.
So Jesus is fully identified with who He represents, fully human in his weakness and suffering: Fully identified with US.
And Jesus was heard by God (verse 7) in his suffering referring to the anguish in the garden of Gethsemene.
Through His suffering his humanity was made “perfect”, a familiar word used a lot in Hebrews that means completeness and effectiveness.
Jesus is the high priest chosen and appointed by God, fully identified with humanity, who can therefore perform the one sacrifice that can finally achieve the salvation of our souls. His self-sacrifice.
In shorthand form, “Jesus died for our sins”. “Jesus died to save us”
Our first reading from Isaiah puts this in the most beautiful poetic form;
I can’t improve on it or really comment on it further.
Bu for an eloquent expression of what Christians believe about Jesus Christ you could do little better than meditate on Isaiah 53: 4-end. Written hundreds of years before Jesus was born in Palestine.
Now it stands to reason that the rules of engagement in this extraordinary new world inaugurated by Christ were not going to be ordinary.
In the Kingdom of God, things were going to be different.
In Mark’s gospel the disciples are portrayed as having feet of clay at the best of times, not fully understanding what Jesus was about, no better illustrated by two disciples, James and John who rather than embrace the fullness of the kingdom and its values see rather an opportunity of barefaced political ambition. They haven’t understood, and Jesus gives them two answers to their request for advancement.
Jesus points to suffering as His destiny and asks whether they can share that with Him?
Secondly He tells them that it is not in his gift anyhow. That is up to God Himself. Jesus is God’s willing agent, not a works manager dealing out favours.
Lastly He gives a positive vision of the structures of the new life and the new society which is based on His own character and destiny.
To “serve” and “give His life as a ransom for many.”
This has been the foundational model for all Christian ministry ever since.
How any church can actually survive without precedence, rank, honours and power is another matter entirely.
The Anglican church has definite hierarchical power structures, it goes without saying, but also churches that have tried to flatten or democratise their structures have encountered different pressures and complications.
But we all should at least know that the original intention and still powerful underpinning of ministry is one of "service", and those words of Jesus to James and John are still there to remind us of that intention.
My basic understanding of this church, any church, is that we are an organic body with different roles and responsibilities within that body and we all need each other.
Any church group needs someone to lead and teach and keep the body close to the gospel imperatives that have come to us in the Biblical revelation – that is my understanding of ordination and my particular gift which is my service to the body.
But we all have a gift and we are all called to offer it in service to the body of Christ.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Strong medicine

Sunday 14th October: Trinity 20: Proper 23
Amos 5: 6-7. Threat and promise from one of the earliest prophets (pre-&22 AD) whose main concern is for the corruption of Justice.
Hebrews 4: 12-16."The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword...all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account." But we have a saviour who knows our weaknesses so we can approach the throne of grace to receive mercy
Mark 10:17-31. Nowhere in the largely middle class, comfortable church we inhabit is that piece from Hebrews most apposite. We are acutely embarrassed by the notion that wealth and the kingdom of God don't mix and shy away from the issue. It is truly radical and I suggest it is about our priorities in life, our singleness of mind and loyalty to God as revealed in Christ. We can take heart that actually "Jesus looked and him and loved him"(verse 21) so while we are feeling embarrassed about wealth, Jesus does know and understands our complex lives and dilemmas.

"The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword...all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account."
These words from the letter to the Hebrews are no more true than when Jesus starts talking about money.
British people generally have a difficult time talking about money; what they get paid, and how they spend it. In our culture it is an intensely private thing and when Jesus starts talking about wealth being at best a hindrance and at worst antithetical to the Kingdom of God we all of us start to get a bit hot under the collar.
Who me?
It isn’t helped by the fact that in relation to most people in the 1st century AD we are all immensely wealthy.
But if we can just step back and see what Jesus was really getting at in this altercation we can realise what He is getting at.
When we look at this issue it becomes clear that what wealth can do is give us a false sense of security and self sufficiency.
What is needful in the kingdom of God is a sense of the need of God; the need of a saviour.
What money does is increase our sense that we have everything we need already, so we obviously have no need of God.
Financial Self sufficiency and security can lead us into believing that we achieved everything ourselves and pride enters the equation. Wealth and humility are not necessarily strange bed fellows but they can be.
We tell ourselves that we worked hard for this money, it’s ours, and we can build walls around ourselves, not only against other people but also against God.
This was the position of the rich young man who came to Jesus asking how he could inherit eternal life?
Jesus saw deep into his soul and knew the problem at once. He asked him if he knew the commandments and kept them, which he did, but the divine physician diagnosed the spiritual problem as soon as he came to him and told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor.
Because he had so much he went away grieving
And it is because most of us also have many possessions that this teaching grieves us as well.
We can feel that double edged sword cleaving us in two and piercing our soul.
Is that me, we ask ourselves?
The Probability that it might be, is high.
Because it is a question of priorities in our lives. Where in reality does God come in our lives.
All of us can question ourselves, me included asking “Is He integral to our lives or a pious Sunday add-on to the rest of our lives which we otherwise live in blissful avoidance of Him?”
So that rich young man could be any one of us at many and various times. We are all sinners. All of us are flawed.
But the crowning glory of Christian faith is that we are all saved sinners.
Before Jesus challenged him, in verse 21 Mark writes “Jesus looking at him, loved him and said”
Yes Jesus was challenging the young man but He was doing so out of love for him. Jesus is that essential friend who tells you the truth about yourself that others might baulk at saying.
For as it states today in Hebrews;
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)
Jesus knows how conflicted we are and how getting by in this world is a constant challenge. He knows how easy it is to succumb to temptations. Tempting to surround ourselves with too many things which we imagine will protect us from all the calamities that can befall us in life.
He knows you and I better than we know ourselves. He looks at us with the same insight that He looked at that young man.
But just like that young man, He looks at us with love. He says these things not to defeat us. He says them to challenge us and try and form us into something better, something more perfect, something more Christ-like.
Before Christians were called Christians – something that we are told happened in Antioch in the early days we were called followers of the way – the way of Jesus.
Following Jesus in the way is not an easy option – it is full of challenges and today’s parable is just one of them. Jesus said Himself that the path is narrow that leads to life and few find it.
But in trying to do so, even when we fail, we are building the kingdom of heaven – we are the side of the angels – and at the last, our accumulated wealth cannot help us. Only God can do that. And this is Jesus’ point.
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and then everything else will be given as well.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Jesus the second Adam

October 7th: Trinity 19: Proper 22

Genesis 2: 18-24. The second human creation story (The first is in chapter 1) which both tell us different things. In this one, verse 24 is the important one when on marrying they both transfer their allegiances and affections from their parents to each other. 
Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2:5-12. Two sections of Hebrews grafted together. One asserting the divinity of Jesus reminiscent of John's famous prologue and the second asserting the importance of the humanity of Jesus for our salvation
Mark 10: 2-16. In the arguments about divorce Jesus asserts that God's will is as stated in the beginning and he quotes Genesis 2:24, and later rules were a concession to our weakness and innate sinfulness. Jesus as I preached last week is inaugurating nothing less than a return to Eden.  

Last Sunday I preached that the perfect unsullied relationship between God and humanity is the one that existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall and that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was to deal with sin and re-establish that relationship.

That is essential to remember that when we look at the set readings today when Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce between a man and a woman.

This is very poignant today because I conducted the last wedding of the year in the RMC yesterday in All Saints East Budleigh.

When asked to justify his remarks that marriage is an eternal covenant for life Jesus refers his listeners back to the book of Genesis chapter 2 verse 24.

In saying this He is doing far more than just saying “Look at the rules: this is what God says”

He is in effect saying that in Him He is re-creating Eden. God’s provision for Adam and Eve has priority over any subsequent loosening of that intention, and within the story of that first man and woman we see God’s original purposes for human life.

A man and a woman joined together for life “until death do us part” as the liturgy states.

Later rules says Jesus, were a concession to our innate sin, weakness and hardness of heart. In Genesis 1 verse 27 , the first creation story it says,

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”.

We can take from this that men and women were made together and that together they complete each other in reflecting God’s image.

Men and women are created equal but undeniably different and together we complete each other and reflect God’s image in which we were originally created.

These values, the original intention, were to be one of the hallmarks of the new age of the kingdom of God that Jesus was inaugurating.

What qualifies Jesus to inaugurate and usher in this “new Eden” is given to us in the letter to the Hebrews, so beautiful written it scarce needs any commentary from me.

The two extracts from Hebrews amplify the two natures of Christ who is both fully divine, and just as importantly fully human.

Both His divinity and his humanity are vital to our eternal salvation won for us by his sacrifice made once for all.

The word made flesh. It was essential that in his humanness he knows our weakness and temptation, our suffering and our death, but it was also essential that He is divine and whose sinless death has the power to cover all human sin.

In our secular society that seeks to undermine and negate everything that Jesus stands for and accomplished, it is vitally important that we stand firm and defend our Christian values, not by being purely defensive but being positive and joyful proponents of lifelong marriage between a man and a woman as a sign of the values heralded by Jesus.

Lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is a powerful statement of Christian values; values that embody the kingdom of God

It is clear from all available evidence that a stable monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is by far the best environment to bring up children.

But secular elements seem to want to do anything they can to undermine marriage and make divorce ever easier. They do this often in the misguided belief that they are making things easier for women. All that has happened in reality is huge sink estates filled with unmarried and divorced mothers struggling to bring up children alone in areas that are sometimes described as “man deserts”.

It is ironic really because Jesus hardening attitudes in his time against divorce was in a very concrete way helping women in first century Palestine. Then, a woman on her own was a truly marginal figure, and whether widowed, single or divorced the term “widows and orphans” became a catch-all biblical phrase to describe the marginalised people in society

Life within the kingdom of God, which Jesus both announces and inaugurates is nothing less that the renewal of paradise – a new Eden.

It is no wonder that St. Paul calls Jesus a second Adam in Romans (15:12 and in 1Corinthians 15:22) and life in Christ as a new creation (2Cor. 5:17 and Gal. 6:15)

Jesus’ picture of marriage is of life as it is to be in God’s kingdom, when everything is renewed and perfected, where monogamy, trustfulness, and commitment are foremost is actually a reflection of our relationship and attitude towards God which is why Marriage is regarded as a sacrament and wherever the kingdom is found, there is Jesus, and Where Jesus is – there is the new Eden.

Monday, 1 October 2018

We plough the fields and scatter.

Harvest Festival – 2018
Harvest Festival in its modern incarnation is a relatively modern invention, stemming from a brainwave by a Cornish vicar in Victorian times.
But as he and all religious people recognise, celebrating harvests is one of the bedrocks of religious festivals, including the Jewish religion of course.
Giving thanks to God for the fruits of the earth to sustain human life is a primal religious impulse.
Christians, using a metaphor that Jesus used, have also talked about salvation in terms of “the Harvest of human souls”.
Now the Bible is not opened as much as it should be and one reason for that it that it seems too complicated.
So I have come up with an audacious plan to explain the entire Bible to you this morning in one sermon.
We can distil the essence of the Bible as a story of three gardens, so Harvest is the perfect place to do this.
The whole Bible is a history of God’s relationship with humanity. A perfect relationship, that was then broken and then eventually put back together.
We start at the very beginning in the book of Genesis.
(Hold up an apple). What garden does this apple represent?
The garden of Eden represents the perfect world created by God and that creation was crowned by us human beings.
This perfect creation though was spoiled. The story of the garden of Eden is that this was where sin entered and spoiled the world and created a barrier between human beings and God.
The fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is often represented in art as an apple though that is never specified in the Bible.
Through disobeying God, mankind was similarly elevated in recognising the moral good and moral evil, just like God, but unlike God we are not able to deal with the choices that come with it.
But the most important part of the story is that a barrier between God and humanity as Adam and eve were expelled from the garden. We have been enslaved to suffering sin and death ever since and cut off from God because He is perfectly good and Holy.
Healing the rift caused by sin between God and mankind was the job at hand for God ever since.
He needed to do something about it for both his and our sake. He chose to speak through the Jews starting with Abraham, gave them the law, sent prophets and kings to try and work through the Jews to bring people back into communion, a living relationship with him, but they had very little success because the power of sin is so pervasive and cancerous.
Eventually God did act decisively to bring people back into a relationship with Him by sending his son Jesus Christ.
This brings us to our second garden.
(Hold up olives). What garden looms large in the story of Jesus.
The garden of Gethsemene is our second and most pivotal garden in the story of how God planned to bring us all back to him.
In that garden of tears, Jesus wrestled with God. He baulked at the prospect that following His Father’s will would lead by a brutal and painful death but He also knew that if He did so, He would defeat sin and win salvation for humanity. He used the template of a sacrifice for sin well known to the Jews from their Temple cult to do this.
Because Jesus is both human and divine, his sacrifice carries universal validity and stands for all time. So if you believe that Jesus is the son of God you have assurance that his sacrifice is real and effective and brings you back into a relationship with God through Him.
So God dealt with what happened in the first garden once and for all.
You will have noted that the story of the Bible is about repairing a broken relationship and that relationship is the real story of the Bible.
Which brings me to the final Garden.
At the end of time in a blessed re-creation when all sin and evil has been abolished and there is no pain or suffering or tears any more, the tree of life growing by the banks of the river of the water of life in the book of Revelation, will produce much fruit.
In his life Jesus anticipated this final garden by likening himself to the stem of the vine and us being its branches. We enjoy a foretaste of that final re-creation in a relationship with Jesus
(hold up grapes)
We are connected forever to Him . Our faith in Jesus, grafted in to his root, is a foretaste of that final garden represented by the vineyard.
It is as I say all about relationship. Christianity at its heart is a renewed relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
It is a spiritual relationship enabled by the Holy Spirit of God, but because God is the Lord of all creation he can work through the signs and symbols we use, and Jesus used to create and reinforce that relationship.
Primarily we use Baptism and Holy Communion to initiate and then strengthen our relationship with God.
Communion of course draws this all together because in our communion we recall and enter in to the sacrifice for our sins made on the cross and we are in the words of St. Paul, declared righteous and a part of God’s family again.
The Bible explained in three gardens.
In God’s eyes, we are the Harvest.